Study of nonverbal autism must go beyond words, experts say

Roughly 25 percent of people with autism speak few or no words. A generation ago, that figure was closer to 50 percent. Most researchers agree that the decline is due to the recognition of more people with milder forms of autism, as well as to the advent of early intervention programs that have helped more children develop language than in the past.

“One of the primary success stories of early interventions is that they promote language development,” says Helen Tager-Flusberg, director of the Research on Autism & Developmental Disorders program at Boston University. “Nevertheless,” she says, “there are clearly individuals who are diagnosed early, do have access to high-quality interventions, and still fail to acquire spoken language.”

Paradoxically, many researchers now argue that in order to better understand and treat this subgroup of nonverbal people with autism, the field needs to move beyond focusing on speech production. Emerging research suggests that seemingly unrelated issues, such as motor skills and joint attention, may instead be key.

Language delay gets a lion’s share of the attention perhaps because it is often the first and most compelling sign of autism. “Parents, pediatricians, psychologists — everyone, we all focus on word production,” says Joe McCleery, lecturer in developmental neuroscience at the University of Birmingham in the U.K.

But factors that are usually thought of as being outside the realm of speech and communication, such as memory or motor problems, may also play a role, McCleery says. If an infant can’t coordinate movements — such as babbling while rhythmically banging hands on a table or high-chair tray — which is thought to contribute to later language development, then speech may be stymied1.

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